A year ago, the personal immolation of a young street vendor, having had enough abuse and humiliation from government officials, started a popular revolt that not only brought an end to decades of dictatorship in Tunisia, but set in motion a chain reaction that challenged the stability and the future of an entire region.
After Ben Ali was deposed in Tunisia, Mubarak was deposed in Egypt. Shalel in Yemen faced massive demonstrations demanding his dismissal. Bahrain’s Shia majority also revolted against its Sunni rulers. In Libya, Bengazi rebels initiated a military campaign that, after six month of fighting, put an end to 40 years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship. And weekly demonstrations forced the King of Morocco to open up the political system and change his country’s constitution.
Suddenly, almost overnight, a calm and submissive region was boiling with popular demonstrations, overthrowing long-term, well-rooted dictatorships.
Probably because the changes were unexpected and seemed to point to replace repression with freedom and tyranny with democracy, they were enthusiastically embraced by Western countries. The U.S. let Mubarak, a long term ally, fall without a blink of an eye, in order to show support to the people; and NATO engaged in a six month aerial campaign to help change the regime in Libya.
Everything was so promising that the revolts shaking North Africa and the Gulf were termed "the Arab Spring" in the wake of the velvet revolutions that liberated central and eastern Europe from Soviet domination.
We rightly celebrate the electoral process across the region. But we must also be aware that where free elections have taken place, the Islamists have won. It happened in Tunisia first, where the Enhada party ("Renaissance") obtained 40% of the vote. It happened in Morocco, where the party Justice and Development won 1/3 of the seats and its leader, Abedlilah Benkirane, will be the new Prime Minister. And we saw it also in Egypt, where the first electoral round gave the Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party, plus the radical salafists 60% of the vote, higher than expected.
It has been said that the winners are moderate Islamists, and it may be true. But if you a woman, a Christian or a Jew, in any of those countries, the line between moderates and radicals is a fine distinction to be made. Actually, in a country like Tunisia, with a relatively sophisticated society, the first law to be amended has to do with the right of women to divorce. In Libya, polygamy is going to be reintroduced, beauty parlors and discos has been assaulted in Tripoli, and everywhere sharia law will be inspiring new constitutional texts.
In sum, in a year we have passed from the great expectations and promises of the so called "Arab spring" to a new and less optimistic reality on the ground, now termed sarcastically "the Arab winter".
How and why did this happen? First of all, we in the West were naive about what can be accomplished in such a short time in societies that never experienced before a real parliamentary system and where modern, pro-liberal forces were tiny minorities, repressed for years, and with endemic weaknesses, totally unable to present a political challenge to dominant Islamist movements.
It is our grave mistake that for many years we neglected pro-Western groups in order to avoid any friction with the existing rulers. At the same time, motivated by our inclination to defend human rights, and in a openly contradictory approach, we helped Islamists leaders who are now taking power without showing any kind of thankfulness for what we did for them in the past. Without political asylum in the UK, Tunisian leader Rachid Ghadnouchi could have been buried alive in prison. The same goes for Kamal Helbawy, current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo; or even worst, the Libyan rebel military commander, Abdul Hakim Belhad, a well-known jihadist who was one of the suspects involved in the Madrid train bombing of March 2004.
Second, our strategy has been totally contradictory. While we encouraged the ouster of Mubarak or Gaddafi, even by violent means, we greeted the Saudi invasion of Bahrain because we feared Iranian involvement in that kingdom more than we supported the realization of popular demands. We turned away when confronted with grave basic rights violations there. Not to speak about the open contradiction between our approach to Libya and Syria. In the first case we militarily intervened in order to prevent a massacre that could have happened, while in Syria we don't act even though we are witnessing a real and ongoing massacre.
Third, the West, as such, has dissipated in relation to the region. The weight of individual nations has exceeded by far the collective cooperation and willingness to act. The so-called Obama doctrine of "leading from behind" proved too detrimental for the effectiveness and decisiveness of NATO’s campaign against Gaddafi, prolonging a conflict that could have been concluded more quickly.
"We in the West were naive about what can be accomplished in such a short time in societies that never experienced before a real parliamentary system and where modern, pro-liberal forces were tiny minorities, repressed for years, and with endemic weaknesses, totally unable to present a political challenge to dominant Islamist movements.""
Fourth, with all due respect to the popular courage of many people in the region, who were facing threats far worse than pepper spray, political changes have not been matched by economic changes. Without economic development, any potential for political openness and freedom will be questionable. Young people in particular need real options to find a decent job and to lift their lives. I'm not sure the new Islamist governments will be the best to promote prosperity and growth.
This is very important in a moment where, despite all the talk about a "new Marshall Plan" for the region, we in Europe are trapped by our own debt and economic crisis.
What we are witnessing in North Africa and the Middle East is of historic and strategic importance for the fate of millions of people from the region; for Israel, the only Western country within the region; and for all of us.
I also believe that the challenge emerging from the changes taking place is so big that we had better put in place a common Western strategy or we'll find that national approaches are totally irrelevant to shape events there. In that sense it is highly troubling to see the growing lack of credibility of American and European policies in the Gulf, for instance.
We need to formulate an approach that is not short-sighted or naïve, and that understands that sometimes we face problems that cannot be solved easily or tomorrow.
We also need to formulate such an approach without being prisoners of a guilt complex. We are not responsible for the main problems affecting the region, and we cannot be responsible for their solution. It is up to the people there. We must help, but we must do it in a way that preserves our own interests.
Finally we must express our concerns when necessary. Not all changes are for the better. If we applaud everything, we will be perceived as weak, and we will be establishing a bad base from which to build positive relations with the new regimes emerging in the region. Appeasement was never a very clever policy, and it should not be our option today.
Jose Maria Aznar is Distinguished Fellowat the Johns Hopkins University Center for Transatlantic Relations and former Prime Minister of Spain.